I try in this blog to be reasonably dispassionate about issues. But I’m afraid when it comes to London, the Olympics and sporting participation, I find it hard to keep my cool. Let me try to explain why.
Long term readers of this blog may recall that nearly two years ago I tried to get a new Big Society style initiative going. Despite the excellent management of the Olympic project in terms both of preparation for the Games themselves and regeneration, I had started to worry that there was no plan in place to boost sporting participation. Apart from the basic commitment to participation as a good thing for individuals and communities, I felt it was vital that London citizens did something to deliver on the core promise of inclusion made when our city won the bid.
In typical RSA ‘don’t just complain, do something’ style, we worked with a number of public, third sector and private organisations to develop an idea (the development work was kindly subsidised by RSA London Region). This was for an independent campaign (working title ‘Let the games begin’) which would mobilise and organise so that London would be seen by the world to have used the Olympics to boost sporting participation. As well as public marketing campaigns for people to take up sport, ‘Let the Games Begin’ was also going to try to tap ‘hidden assets’ for participation such as making down time in commercial gyms available to school kids or opening up private sector playing fields. We also had plans for a sporting time bank.
There was a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea and even some tentative funding commitments from large corporates. But the idea could not have succeeded without endorsement from the Mayor, who had at the time commissioned Labour MP Kate Hoey to write a sports strategy for London. Unfortunately, despite my attempts to persuade Boris’ policy advisor and Kate, the Mayor’s office refused to back the proposals and we had to abandon it. Kate Hoey assured me that the RSA idea was unnecessary as her local authority-based plan would deliver higher participation.
So I have been saddened by the regular, and now overwhelming, evidence not only that sporting participation rates are falling, not onlythat is there a growing social divide in sporting activity, but also – perhaps most embarrassing for London - rates are particularly poor in some of the Olympic Boroughs. There is yet more evidence today.
As David Goldblatt writes in a piece in this month’s RSA Journal, between state and market there is huge scope for sport to be part of the Big Society vision. If only we had made 2012 participation a public crusade for the whole of London we could, despite major cuts to community sports budgets, have delivered on the promise made back in 2005.
Maybe even now it’s not too late, especially if London media like the flourishing Evening Standard get behind the idea, but it would take a change of heart from Boris and Kate, something which, I’m afraid, is beyond me.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.